Mr. Stevens's Tirade

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

ALASKA SEN. Ted Stevens threw the senatorial version of a hissy fit on the floor the other day. The issue was a proposal by his Republican colleague, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, to block $453 million earmarked for two Alaska bridges in the recent highway bill and instead use some of the money to rebuild the Interstate 10 bridge across Lake Ponchartrain wiped out by the recent hurricane. Mr. Stevens is one of the masters of the Senate at steering federal money in the direction of his state, but he was not going to stand for this reverse flow.

"I will put the Senate on notice -- and I don't kid people -- if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state and take money only from our state, I will resign from this body," Mr. Stevens vowed. Sounds awfully tempting to us -- but not, apparently, to Mr. Stevens's colleagues; the amendment failed 82 to 15.

What's most impressive about Mr. Stevens's tantrum is his ability to summon up this degree of righteous indignation -- self-righteous might be more apt -- over the alleged mistreatment of a state that benefits enormously, and disproportionately, from federal spending.

Leave aside for the moment the matter of whether these two earmarks represent a wise use of federal dollars. Okay, we can't let it go; they don't. One, a partial payment for the now infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," would link Ketchikan (population 8,900) with its airport on Gravina Island (population 50). The other, the magnificently named "Don Young's Way" -- hint: Mr. Young, Alaska's sole House member, conveniently happens to chair the transportation committee -- would be a down payment on a billion-dollar bridge across an inlet in Anchorage to a nearly deserted port.

Rather, think about this spending in the larger context: Poor, mistreated Alaska. It ranks number one in per capita federal spending, $12,279 in 2003, compared with Nevada, number 50 at $5,235 for every resident. Alaskans received $1.89 in federal help for every tax dollar they sent to Washington, making the state second only to New Mexico as a net beneficiary of federal largess.

This tale of woe is particularly heart-wrenching when it comes to transportation funding: Of the $24 billion in earmarked projects in the most recent transportation bill, nearly $1 billion went to Alaska, putting the nation's 47th most populous state just behind California and Illinois. The measure provided $1,597 in earmarked funding for every man, woman and child in the state.

Indeed, even if Mr. Coburn's amendment had been adopted, Alaska would have remained by far the leader of the pack in per capita funding. If that's being discriminated against, every state should be so lucky.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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